The challenge (and promise) of digital signatures
I am staring at the first two pieces of paper I have created since I began the Paperless Challenge, wondering what went wrong. It was a simple transaction, but one we face at LACCD everyday... I needed to get some signatures. While there has been news in press lately about President Obama's "AutoPen" and its validity, wet stamps and signatures are still the norm here, especially when it comes to signing and stamping drawings to the Division of the State Architect (DSA).
Try to understand this workflow:
- We use computer software to create documents electronically.
- When the document is issued for review, it may be issued as a paper document, or dsitributed electronically via e-mail, resulting in multiple copies
- Copies are then marked up, on paper or electronically, and then sent back to the author.
- Author updates original document in computer software.
- When the document is complete, copies are made for review and signature.
- LACCD requires a wet signature for official record. Once signed, the 'original' hard copy document gets scanned and archived for future reference. The hard copy is filed away for record.
- Hard Copies of signed drawings may then be distributed and used to mark up and track progress, and would need to be transferred to a revised set if updates to the drawings are necessary.
For CAD or BIM files, the route is even more circuitous. Prints come from an electronic print or pdf file that is generated from a drawing or modeling software. The drawings are a snapshot of a design that is today almost entirely captured on a computer. Even if sketches or hand drawn details are used, we will not sign the original copy. Rather, a copy is placed on a drawing sheet, most likely as a scanned document.
So in the process of getting a signed document, we go from electronic document to hard copy or pdf for review, back to the original electronic document, and back to hard copy for signature and mark up. In the process, there may also be several versions generated (both electronic or paper) that will get stored away in multiple places and never used again.
If we trace the flow of documents, does it really make sense to create a hard copy for signature if the beginning and final documents we will use are digital files or mere reproductions of the original? Obviously, there are security concerns when introducing an all digital media, but there is also the convenience and time factor. If I have to log in to my computer to open up and sign a document, that will take a lot more time than just having a pen and stamp handy and signing a paper document that is handed to me. With these considerations in mind, I spent a couple days looking in to a few digital signature applications, both desktop and tablet based.
Based upon LACCD's mix of large format drawings and small scale documents, here are two tools that are promising that look at digital stamps and signatures in very different ways:
Bluebeam has a secure digital signature tool, but getting a handwritten signature as opposed to an image or typed name, can be cumbersome
I decided to start with the software we already have in place, and concluded that if we still need to see 2D documents (many of which are not BIM related), pdfs are probably the best document format we could use since it is a universally used format and there are tools to secure its content from being edited. It is also the format already being used to archive our official documents electronically. Bluebeam has a secure digital signature that allows you to add signature fields and create digital signatures and certifications. While it is possible to edit the appearance, it can be cumbersome if a handwritten signature is desired, since you would need a digital pen and a graphic software that supports the pen to create a handwritten signature. An alternative is to create a signature using the digital stamp tool, where you could bring in an image of your signature. The stamp tool is also great for inserting a digital replica of a rubber stamp, and can be done in just a matter of seconds on any number of documents.
However, in the case of a digital stamp, a signature or stamp would have to be flattened (non-editable) in Bluebeam and the security verification features would not be enabled. That being said, if all employees created a signature stamp and that signature could then be applied using Bluebeam, one could literally hand a tablet or mobile phone to a colleague for signature, and have them sign it in person on their mobile app.
|Ink allows you to drag and drop your signature from your tablet, |
but secure access still needs to be improved
If you are a heavy tablet user, and work primarily with smaller format documents, then DocuSign Ink might be a better solution. Ink is a mobile app, and it can be connected to cloud based document storage services like Evernote, Google Drive, and DropBox. The interface is pretty simple. Choose a digital document, and then click on the "Sign" button. If you are using the app for the first time, it will prompt you to create your own signature and initials before selecting a document. You can then use your finger or a stylus to create the signature and store it as part of your profile. When you are ready to sign, go back to the document, tap on the signature button, and drag and drop the signature in place. Size and fit the signature to your liking, and save the document. Done! If you want additional security, you can add a photo and profile information when the document is signed.
If that is not enough, the feature that separates Ink from other digital signature apps is the ability to request signatures directly through the interface and either sign remotely or in person. You have the option to send the document remotely via email, or you can sign in person using a tablet. In either scenario, Ink asks you to type in an email address for the recipient, and stores it on the document. After you complete your signature, Ink will wait for the next signee. If you need to have individuals sign in person, simply hand your tablet to your colleague, and let them review and sign the document as needed. Once they are done, an email will be sent to each recipient with a record of the document.
Two potential drawbacks that are worth noting: First, if you are signing with a tablet, make sure you are in a location where you can access wi-fi or cellular data while signing or the transaction will not process. (This actually happened to me while I was trying to get a signature, which is why I had to make a hard copy.)
Second, while Ink makes it is easy to set up accounts for all signees from your tablet, this also means that security can be compromised. Despite sending all signees an email after the transaction is complete, there is no way at this time for the software to verify you and your signees are actually who you claim to be, meaning you should still all agree to sign in person. However, this would be a similar problem with a paper document so it is technically not a flawed solution, and you wouldn't get a digital copy with your paper document unless you scanned it manually.
If an organization is going to implement digital signatures across the enterprise, careful consideration needs to occur with regards to time, convenience, and most importantly security. While there are many tools in the market place today, consider the workflow and type of documents you need to sign and stamp and test those tools before implementing. Then, spread the word and start to get buy in. Change will not happen overnight, but every sheet counts. And remember, unlike digital documents, once you print and you see a mistake, there is no "Undo" button to erase the sheet that you've used. That is the lesson I learned today when I printed my first sheet in more than 10 days.